Westminster View

One of my last public appearances as the trade minister was to speak at a Westminster Hall debate in July about the NHS and future trade deals.

A petition signed by more than 166,000 people was seeking assurances the NHS would not, in effect, be put up for sale as part of any future trade negotiations the UK undertakes post-Brexit.

I was more than happy to give the assurance that the Government will protect the NHS in trade negotiations.

This is just a tiny footnote in the annals of our parliamentary history but one I felt was important to make. I don’t want to make politics out of the NHS because we all care about it, want it to work the best it can and governments, both Labour and Conservative, have ensured its founding principles remain.

In fact, a recent YouGov poll found that more than two thirds of people thought the NHS was Britain’s greatest achievement.

Given that strength of feeling, why would this or any future Government, who purported to represent the people, use trade deals as some kind of back door to privatise the NHS?

The simple answer is the British people would not countenance any such move, and it simply would not get through parliament either.

But there remains some genuine concern and also some misinformation and, in my speech, I asked everyone to stop scaremongering, examine the facts and agree there is no prospect whatever of any British Government of any colour or flavour seeking to privatise the NHS by the back door.

So why the concern and why the scaremongering? Well, some in some parties are whipping up concerns for their own political ends and these are unsettling times. Therefore, it won’t do for me to simply state the NHS will not be privatised post-Brexit, but to explain why not.

Firstly, the World Trade Organisation – the body we will largely trade under the rules of, has a general agreement on trade in services that explicitly exempts services that are, ‘supplied in the exercise of governmental authority’. That’s the NHS.

Secondly, much has been made of so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms would allow foreign firms to take the UK to court for not opening the NHS up to further competition. This is, of course, a concern, but it is not a truth because ISDS does not and cannot force the privatisation of public services. The mechanisms only provide protection for established investments. On a practical level, the UK has more than 90 bilateral investment treaties in place, yet there has never been a single successful ISDS claim against the UK Government on any issue.

Thirdly, there has been talk of a trade deal with the United States raising the cost of medicines. However, the government has been clear that in any future negotiations we could not agree to any proposals on medicines pricing or access that would put NHS finances at risk or reduce clinician and patient choice and that won’t change.

However, there are realities here that must be addressed and I made the point that it's impossible to imagine a world where we would not buy our pharmaceuticals from the private sector, for example.

And it must be considered that private operators could provide services in certain areas of expertise because it’s just plain common sense to be flexible and secure the best healthcare.

However, that common sense will be in our gift. No trade deal can force any UK government to change the way we run our public services and, in one of my final acts as a government minister, I was proud to explain that.